Twenty-four Hours in Harbin

Trip Start Jul 28, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  , Heilongjiang,
Friday, March 19, 2010

My company has a program in Harbin, China, which is really popular with students, and I never quite understood why. All I knew about Harbin was that it was bitter cold in the winter and, accordingly, it had a rather wacky ice festival. My trip there was only twenty-four hours, and the ice festival ended in February, but from what I did see of the city, I can say the town has something really special.

The first thing that hit me in Harbin was that it was, indeed, bitter cold. But then the second thing I noticed (especially since I had just come from Beijing) was that the air was really clean. My co-worker explained to me that because it snows regularly in the winter, the air is constantly being cleased of pollutants. Having caught a nasty cold in Beijing, the clear, crisp air of Harbin was a Godsend to my respiratory system. 

A third thing I noticed in Harbin was the Russian influence in the architecture ... but Russian in the sense of Catherine the Great, with colorful, decorative facades, rather than Stalin's nondescript concrete block structures. The look of Harbin, with these brightly-colored and ornamented buildings, reminded me a lot of Saint Petersburg, and was certainly nothing I had seen in China before.

Another thing that struck me about Harbin was how clear and crisp the Mandarin spoken there was. One hears that Harbin is the home of standard Mandarin, but you don't realize what that means until you go there and realize you can actually understand your taxi driver. In fact, he sounds a lot like your teacher. It is a rare treat to the ears, and also certainly a contributing factor to why our students like studying here so much. Another contributing factor is a lack of other English-speaking foreigners around. The ex-pats in Harbin are predominantly Russian, and, in contrast to Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai with ex-pats from all over the world, our students find it much easier to immerse themselves in a Chinese/non-English speaking environment here. To illustrate this point, when I was in the airport in Beijing on my way to Harbin, a man in line in front of me asked me where I was from, and when I told him, he just could not believe that an American would be going to Harbin. He turned to his friend and said, "She must be going for business." In fact, he was right; however, I would not mind going back to Harbin with some more free time in order to give the city a more thorough look-see. (By the way, I just learned that this expression--to give somethine a "look-see"--comes from Chinese.

Then the next thing to note about Harbin was the food. "Dong-bei" or "northeast" food, they call it. It's rich and salty, and isn't spicy at all. It's winter warming food, and boy did I eat a lot of it! I went out to dinner with my co-workers and one of the things they ordered was a plate full of pig joints. The dish came supplemented with a set of straws, which are used to suck out marrow from the bones. It looked weird and disgusting to me at first, but I tried it and didn't mind the taste. Then I ate my weight in "di san xian," a famous "dong-bei" dish of stir fried potatos, eggplant, and bell peppers. Then I washed it down with a bottle of Harbin beer, the most popular beer in China, and the final thing that struck me as outstanding on this trip.

Yes, given the combination of clean air, beautiful architecture, standard Mandarin, lack of English-speaking foreigners, "dong-bei" food, and Harbin Beer, it is no wonder that our students love studying in Harbin so much. 
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Inge on

Oh too bad the Ice Festival was over - would have loved to have seen some of the fantastic edifices they construct. Ingrid, you are a BRAVE eater - some of the stuff you describe would turn my stomach but may be you were a kid who ATE EVERYTHING unlike mine. The mix of architectural styles is breathtaking and it looks very clean. Of course the air would be not polluted and the speech neither (so far-out:), it is not in the Azores either yet I too caught a nasty cold. When are you heading home???

Regine on

It sounds like Harbin would be a place worth revisiting during the summer months. I understand that the winters are severe and the snow and ice festivals are amazing. Glad you liked the place and found it a good place for students. Your pictures of the buildings verify the impression of the old Russian style architecture. I wonder if the area was once part of Russia.

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